How do you shop Net-a-Porter? If you’re a purist like me, you log on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday sometime around midday UAE time (allowing for the UK to wake up) and swiftly scroll the What’s New section, religiously adding anything eye-catching to your Wish List for more detailed perusing later on. Speed is key here as hot items frequently sell out before they even hit the site, thanks to Net-a-Porter’s network of personal shoppers who alert privileged customers – EIPs (Extremely Important People) – to in-demand arrivals a couple of days in advance. So it was with Vita Kin, the Ukrainian national dress label that street style stars made an Insta-hit last summer. Thanks to my own plugged-in personal shopper Amy, I managed to snare one of the coveted pieces last August, while most were left scrabbling. For vice president of global buying Sarah Rutson – a relative newcomer to the Net-a-Porter business – this inability to meet customer demand is a source of frustration. “When I came on board,” in January 2015, “the first thing I noticed was that everything was sold out immediately as soon as it hit,” Sarah tells me from the Net-a-Porter styling suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Dubai, where the team is showing customers previews of the spring/summer 2016 collections. “Therein lies not just lost opportunity, but if we are saying something’s wonderful we should back it.” In the case of Vita Kin, where the designer literally couldn’t supply more product due to the lengthy hand embroidery involved, Sarah took a pro-active stance, identifying a New York-based brand, March 11, that was producing similar designs. “I am like, ‘Goddammit, I need this product, my customer wants it’, so I went out and got March 11,” she says, adding wryly, “there’s no intellectual property on Ukrainian national dress.” It’s a cautionary tale for designers in a market where the customer is king and satisfying her is Sarah’s top priority. Think of Sarah as the personal shopper for the world. Well, Net-a-Porter’s estimated 800,000 active customers anyway.
Yet her remit stretches beyond keeping customers happy; Sarah and the buying team not only anticipate trends, they set them. “We’re about the edit, it’s about a point of view,” she says of Net-a-Porter’s raison d’être. “We’re not here to be a monobrand store for anyone.” When she joined the business she was determined to be “very clear in what we were saying about the brands, the season and the items we were getting behind. It’s not about ‘Let’s have a little bit of everything and see’, because then you are basically saying, ‘I don’t really know.’”
Her first game-changing move was to bring in more contemporary brands in recognition of the heightened design strengths of the sector and women’s evolving lifestyles. “Everyone’s life changes, your priorities shift. They shift upwards and they shift downwards, you know, with a couple of children and school fees to pay. That doesn’t mean you can’t be included and that’s why it’s critical for us as a brand to make sure we are giving our woman those choices.” Wearing a relaxed jersey dress by Hatch – the New York-based maternity crossover label that hovers around the couple-of-hundred-dollars mark and can be worn from size zero to nine months pregnant – Sarah, who is in her 40s, is no catwalk show-pony. In fact, she takes a fair amount of persuading to change into a more camera-friendly Proenza Schouler dress for Bazaar’s photoshoot.
“Net-a-Porter is a headquarters for designer. But I felt that it was important to start balancing contemporary in,” she says. “It’s not just about price point, a lot of these designers have their own dialogue, their own DNA. Perhaps 10 years ago all the contemporary designers were basically just riffing off runway designers, now they are doing their own thing, they have their own voice.” Hence the rise of the likes of Tibi, “she’s extraordinary”; Joseph, “there’s so much design in there”; Self-Portrait, “also extraordinary”; Solace London, “the same price-point as Self-Portrait but it’s much cleaner if you want something that is not as overtly feminine.” The list goes on. Most of the site’s new brands for spring/summer sit within the contemporary bracket, “because no one really wears designer head-to-toe,” Sarah concludes. And of course it doesn’t matter whether you are buying Tibi or Tom Ford, every customer has the same height-of-luxury experience, from browsing arguably the most navigable and beautifully presented e-tail site in the world, to receiving their order nestled in luxurious black tissue paper wrapped up in that heart-stopping black ribbon. “That ability to buy into good design at a good price point leaves you with a good feeling. Net-a-Porter is about being very inclusionary. It’s not a snotty brand. Of course it’s aspirational, it’s a luxury service, but rounding that out is very important for me.” I can’t help think that we are lucky to have Sarah playing in our sartorial court. “You know, I am a woman that works in fashion, I am lucky in terms of the pieces I am able to afford to buy, but I wear a lot of better price points,” she says, making me feel instantly better about my own distinctly non-designer skewed wardrobe.
Before joining Net-a-Porter, Sarah’s career spanned two decades at luxury Hong Kong department store group Lane Crawford. With a strong background in bricks and mortar retail, the mind-set shift to online didn’t necessarily come naturally. “When I first came on board I was like, are they really going to be buying a $15,000 Valentino gown online? Are they? Really?” She was pleasantly surprised to discover that yes, we are. “It’s a different way of thinking now. What is luxury? Time. What is luxury? Trying everything on in your own home without feeling stressed.” I would add to that list: not battling with over-crowded mall car parks or dealing with staff whose idea of customer service rarely matches the calibre of the goods they are trying to sell you. Then there’s price: Net-a-Porter’s Middle East customers are served from the London-based distribution centre, which means that all items are exempt from VAT, while advantageous exchange rates play in the favour of regional currencies. I can’t be the only one guilty of trying something on in a GCC store while surreptitiously comparing the price on the NAP app, where identical items are often up to 20 per cent cheaper. Sarah is unapologetic. “More than anywhere else,” she says of Net-a-Porter’s Middle East customer base, “the feedback we get is that they just don’t shop in stores here full stop.” Indeed, the Net-a-Porter experience happily plays into the tradition of personal shopping en masse that has long defined the region’s biggest market, Saudi, where extended families gather together and shop from trunks full of clothing and accessories procured for women to try on in the privacy of their own homes. (Essential given that many women’s clothing shops in the Kingdom do not feature changing rooms.) “Shopping seems to be quite an inclusionary girlfriend or family thing,” Sarah observes. “You’ve got all the Net-a-Porter boxes arriving, all beautifully packaged and wonderful. And they’re having a family and girlfriends’ tea party with 12 of them and the clothes are going back and forth. It’s actually quite lovely to hear all the chatting and laughing and hearing them say, ‘Oh let me try that on after you, it’s lovely!’”
It’s not only Net-a-Porter’s style of shopping that suits the region, its Middle Eastern customers are pretty much a fashion retailer’s dream. “It’s not mindless at all,” Sarah observes of the region’s enthusiasm for fashion, “it’s the joyfulness of clothes."
"Their hair’s all done, their make-up is beautifully done, their nails are done, their feet are done. They are always ready.” And Net-a-Porter’s team of personal shoppers are never more than a WhatsApp away from feeding that enthusiasm. It’s not unusual for a personal shopper to attend buying trips, snapping pics in showrooms and sending them back to customers. They can also provide real time feedback on catwalk pieces from designer re-sees just days after the runway show, explaining that look 33, which a customer loved so much at Chloé, is in fact double-faced boiled wool and probably not right for Kuwait’s humidity. “They can be in the showrooms taking pictures, sending details, saying, ‘I thought of this for you, I know your daughter is getting married.’ All of this back and forth is fantastic. Internet is not a faceless thing by any means.” Much of which is down to one little green icon, “I mean WhatsApp is incredible. It’s a life-changer. I love it.”
The faceless aspect of selling luxury online is one of the last barriers to fall. When Net-a-Porter started in 2000, Sarah points out, “they couldn’t sell anything black. Fifteen years ago we weren’t even buying groceries online, let’s face it, so it had to be something that would take a beautiful photograph. Now, you’ll sell something that is sublime luxury, we sell so much of The Row, which is subtle and understated.” This change hasn’t come about overnight, she says. “It’s been an evolution, the customer understands now what it is. It’s the same with jewellery, you’d think you’d need to engage physically first beforehand.” Not so, judging by Net-a-Porter’s fine jewellery offer, currently topping out at a Gucci spiralling diamond ring for a substantial Dhs308,000. “Everything’s changed.”
Alongside the growing jewellery category, Sarah sees further opportunity in shoes and bags – an area which is traditionally seen as ‘easier’ than ready-to-wear (margins are better, sizing is less of an issue, branding is satisfyingly obvious). “At Net-a-Porter we are world leaders at selling ready-to-wear online. People struggle with it, but we don’t. Most people’s business is shoes and bags, that’s becoming a far more important category for us as well.” My efforts to pry out exactly how Net-a-Porter is going about this meet with blunt resistance. “You know, I’m not going to sit here and give you the absolute road map to my brand for everyone to read about,” Sarah chides.
In the oftentimes flighty world of fashion – the front facing aspect of the industry anyway – Sarah remains a formidable businesswoman who’s not simply here to win friends and parade around in trends, but to power Net-a-Porter, its estimated Dhs3 billion-plus annual revenue and its customers ever-forward. The week we meet she has shuttled between LA, New York, London and Dubai, which is not atypical of her schedule. She says without an ounce of self-pity:
Her 14-year-old daughter Eliza is “my absolute world” and she is sensitive to the conflict of women working in this round-the-clock hothouse with families requiring attention at home. “I am a working woman that’s a family girl. I am a mother and you never do everything perfectly all of the time. You do your best. We are a very female-centric company and it is about getting balance.”
Her softer side comes through in her work mentoring young designers such as Joseph Altuzarra and Jason Wu. I wonder how she views Dubai’s attempts to germinate a homegrown fashion design industry? “Firstly, I would say know your own backyard. Be successful in the market that you know with the customer that you know."
“You also need to deliver, you need to have your manufacturing down, you need to have your sizing down. All of these things you have to get right.”
One of the joys of working for Net-a-Porter, I imagine, is all the real-time information available revealing browsing and buying habits. I confess that I am addicted to the Net-a-Porter Live bar on the site, which tells you how many shoppers are online and what they are adding to bags and wish lists in which cities. It’s a fashion geek’s crack. “Data can give you a lot,” Sarah agrees, “but also you’ve got to be about gut. This is a business, it’s a left and a right brain. It’s creative but it’s also a business, a huge business. So you can’t not use the data that you’ve got, but it can only take you so far. Data can’t sit with you at a Gucci runway show when Alessandro is completely knocking it out of the park,” she enthuses of the Italian brand’s three-seasons-in creative director Alessandro Michele. “There is no statistical data around that. All the data is showing that [Gucci] hasn’t been great, it’s been dying. Then you walk into the showroom and you go, ‘Oh my god look at this, we are going to back this new vision.’ That’s the understanding of how fashion moves and being able to take your customer with that. Because if you just look at figures on a spreadsheet, you are dead.”
During the year that Sarah has worked at Net-a-Porter, the company has undergone a seismic shift. In March 2015 it was the subject of a controversial merger with Italian online discount e-tailer Yoox to form the Yoox Net-A-Porter Group, which was followed five months later by the shock resignation of founder Natalie Massenet, widely considered the totem of the NAP spirit. Talk of Natalie’s departure is sensitive. “It doesn’t mean everything crumbles,” Sarah counters, “because all of us are entrepreneurial. There’s this fantastic Net-a-Porter culture, it’s ingrained throughout the whole business. It’s like a bedrock, deep roots,” she says. It’s a legacy that is almost un-legacylike in its mandate: to not look backwards and dwell on what has been done before but to continually set new standards and drive the goalposts forward. “Our goal is just to keep moving forward,” Sarah agrees. “How do we continue to be the benchmark that everyone looks to?” In the short term that means spearheading the move from desktop computer to mobile, the latter now accounting for 40 per cent of all traffic, up from low single digits just two years ago. The business has already made moves on social shopping via the launch of The Net Set last year. And while she isn’t about to tell me what she has up her expertly-rolled sleeves, it’s a fair bet that Net-a-Porter will be at the front line in the evolution of shopping. As Sarah says, “It was always about being first, being world leading.”
This article appears in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.